ALBIA — Mary Sauter spent years teaching children and preparing them for the challenges they face. Now she spends thousands of dollars per year helping children in need have a brighter holiday.
Sauter was featured this morning on the Today Show's "American Story" segment. You can see the video below. The Courier's feature on Sauter from the 2012 Progress edition follows the video.
Mary Sauter: Giving back to kids
By HELEN HANNAN
ALBIA — Nothing makes Mary Sauter happier than finding a good sale.
“I love it. I get so excited over the purchase of all this stuff for such a mark down” she said while busily removing price tags from neat stacks of footed pajamas. “Originally $20 a pair they were marked down to $2. I took them all,” she beamed.
Sauter isn’t alone in her shopping sprees.
“I have people trained to keep an eye out for sales” especially Target and JC Penney’s she confided.
Little did Sauter suspect the long-term effect of taking four names from the angel tree at Target more than 20 years ago would turn into a magnificent obsession.
She was a teacher then and took four students with her to help shop for the children.
“We had so much fun spending $200 for the kids,” she recalled.
She was hooked. The next year she took a couple more names and gradually the project grew. Last year she was responsible for the distribution of over $150,000 worth of clothing and toys which helped to make a memorable Christmas for more than 800 children.
“I don’t do it alone,” she said. “Carol Scott is my right hand. People want to help. My network of people wanting to help gets bigger and bigger. I think that’s pretty cool,” she smiled. “Those who come on a shopping spree have a ball. They can’t wait to go again.”
The names of children come from many sources, Head Start teachers, churches, SIEDA and individuals, mostly from the Albia area and Oskaloosa and occasionally Cedar Rapids or Mitchellville. The contact person or organization that submits the name also picks up and delivers the gifts Sauter explained.
Most of the families she helps aren’t on any other lists. They are people “down on their luck” because the parent lost his/her job, family emergency, etc.
As the project has grown her shopping savvy has kept pace. She has learned when and where the “really good sales” are most likely. Toys right after Christmas “when mark downs are best and I can get so much more for the same money.” Good sales on winter clothing usually begin in February she said, adding she waits for the really good markdowns of 70 percent or better.
By mid-February she had already purchased 300 coats for next Christmas as well as dozens of infant and toddler pajamas and stacks of tiny feminine two-piece outfits of long sleeved tops and coordinating long pants.
“These were a steal at a dollar a set,” she beamed. As usual she purchased the entire inventory. How could she pass at that price? “I like to hit a sale early while the selection is good.”
New inventory also includes bicycles, dozens of games, dolls, sweat shirts, cosmetic kits, anything likely to please a child. Always with “an eye out” for a good sale, she buys year around.
“At first I stored all the stuff in my basement, but now I have stuff stored all over,” she laughed. She keeps a detailed computerized inventory and knows exactly what she has, how much it cost, the retail value and the location, as well as “a tally” of donors.
The pre-Christmas rush begins in October when Sauter “starts setting stuff out, getting names, preparing packets. The AEA office in Albia allows her space to “spread stuff out at Christmas,” which makes sorting and packing easier for numerous helpers.
This past Christmas Sauter asked parents to fill out wish lists for their children. Usually the lists are mostly toys, she said, but this year was “a real eye opener So many asked for boots, mittens, coats, scarves or hats.
“There were more babies than ever this year, so I am stocking up on baby stuff,” she said. But, the demand varies so sometimes everything isn’t used and “I carry over to the next year.”
For the past couple of years Sauter has added raffle prizes for the children’s cancer and cancer golf tournaments to her shopping lists. Proceeds from the children’s cancer golf tournament are used to send children with cancer and their siblings to a special camp she said
Sauter retired this past May after 32 years teaching in the resource program in Albia High School. She also coached girls golf for 20 years.
The advantage of retirement is “ more time for shopping; but less money” she said ruefully.
The Albia High School Booster Club assigns the concessions at different sports events to various groups. Sauter has the concession for “little kids basketball games.” Also sometimes if a group has no one to work their concession she is asked to help and “gets a cut” of the profit. “I accept every opportunity,” she said. Other funding is mostly “out of hand, private donations and the Albia Quilting Club.
Occasionally she is given a substantial number of toys and collectables such as a couple who donated 90 collectable Barbie and Disney dolls worth more than $2,000. Another time, John Deere donated four boxes full of collectible tractors and airplane banks.
“I have been blessed with a good life. I never had children. It’s a passion of mine now,” she said. “My main goal is to let people know there is someone out here to help. Maybe those people will do the same for someone else at some time.”